What better screenwriting treat is there than a pilot...about a pilot! I ditch the normal screenplay review today to take a rare look at a teleplay.
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Genre: (TV pilot) - Crime
Premise: From the writer: Based on a true story, Full Tilt Boogie follows Danny, a middle-aged pot pilot who juggles his life as a smuggler busting the US/Mexican border with his responsibilities as a father and ex-husband.
About: This story is based on the writer’s own father! The script was a top ten finalist in the Scriptpipeline TV competition. It’s also been a finalist in several other competitions.
Writer: Amber Crawford-Idell
Details: 59 pages
How about today’s pilot? The author is the daughter of our hero! I actually didn't know that when I first read it. It definitely colors my perception in retrospect. But after thinking about it for awhile, I believe Amber’s closeness to the material is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. This is no doubt a fascinating situation with writing that leaves most amateurs clutching their bags in the standby line as their plane speeds down the runway. But on the storytelling end, I’m not sure this one ever gets off the ground. It’s not time to cancel this flight yet though. I think with a little help, it can still get to its destination.
48-year-old Danny is a pot smuggler. He shuttles weed back and forth across the Mexican border in a small airplane with a small crew. But on this particular evening, his plan has gone haywire and he and his buddies find themselves in the Mexican desert running from the authorities. They’re just barely able to get away, but the next day, when they head down to their plane, IT’S GONE!
Strangely, Danny doesn't seem too concerned about this. I don't know about you, but when I'm flying a couple of million dollars’ worth of weed around, I get upset when it disappears. To Danny’s credit, he does want to get to the bottom of it, but man does it not seem like a priority.
After questioning several folks, he ends up at a large private party in Mexico where he's offered the lead pilot job on a big operation. But Danny’s not interested in getting bigger and instead heads back to America to explain to his business partner that his plane vanished.
Shockingly, when he gets there, he finds out his plane – with the marijuana and everything in tow– has just SHOWN UP. Nobody knows how it got there. Nobody knows who flew the thing. It simply arrived without a trace.
It isn’t long before this intriguing mystery is answered, and not in a very satisfying way. Apparently, a Mexican child saw Danny flying through the mountains late at night many years ago. After seeing how happy Danny was, the young man decided he was going to grow up and work with Danny. So he's been researching/stalking Danny ever since. Now a man, he’s taken it upon himself to prove to Danny he’s worthy, I guess by stealing his plane?
Hmm, I’m not sure that’s the best way to get someone to hire you. Steal a couple million bucks of their property. Why not just approach him and ask for a job? I had some other problems with this section as well. How do you even see a man, at night, hundreds (thousands?) of feet above you, flying by at 200 miles per hour? Much less how happy they are? Wouldn’t that be impossible??
Anyway, the twist is that the man is the son of Danny’s drug rival, and he wants to take down his father just as much as Danny does. At the end of the episode, Danny flies back to America and it's there where we realize he actually has a normal family life with a son and a daughter, who have no idea that he's secretly running drugs across the Mexican border every day.
There’s lots of fuel for a TV show here. Combined with the high level of writing, Amber has a genuine reason to be excited about Full Tilt Boogie.
But what this pilot lacks is storytelling. There's never a clear through line to the story. Danny's in Mexico, he goes back to America, he's back in Mexico, then he's back in America, then he goes back to Mexico, then he goes back to America. I understand the nature of this show requires our character to fly around a lot but because we’re never in one place for very long, the story never gets a chance to establish anything.
I was particularly confused by a sequence where Danny flies to some random town - either in America or Mexico - and just randomly bumps into a Mexican girlfriend who he throws a roll of money at and then flies away. You can’t waste scenes in your script, ever. What did this have to do with anything?
Granted, I'm not as savvy about TV writing as I am features, but this script needs a clear goal with some high stakes. What I would do is focus the entire pilot on the disappearing plane. Instead of that being solved by the midpoint, I’d draw it out until the very end. That, then, is your hero’s goal – to find out what happened to the plane.
But where I’d really change things up is in the stakes department. Right now, Danny doesn’t care about his 2 million dollar payload and plane being stolen. And neither does anyone else to be honest. Not only does that not make sense, but it’s boring.
Obviously, this marijuana is someone's. And if there’s someone who just lost $2,000,000 worth of marijuana, they're going to be angry. And they're going to take that out on whoever lost the marijuana. Which means our buddy Danny needs to be in BIG TROUBLE. If he doesn’t find that plane and those drugs soon, he's dead. NOW you have yourself a story!
Stakes need to be raised in other places as well. For example, in another scene Danny steals an airplane from one of the biggest drug dealers in Mexico. Does the dealer get angry? No, not at all. He actually forgets about it. And when Danny brings it back, the dealer doesn’t even mention it.
I don't know about you, but the Mexican drug cartels I hear about don’t forget about stuff like that. They decapitate stuff like that. Then throw the bodies on the local highway. In other words, they’re fucking scary. All the drug people in this script are like your best friends from high school. That needs to change.
Amber’s got some major writing talent. Now she just needs to focus on the storytelling component. When in doubt, always go back to GSU!
Script link: Full Tilt Boogie
[ ] Wait for the rewrite
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: This is a HUGE problem I see over and over again with young writers: Lack of clarity in the writing. If a reader misinterprets one plot point, they might be confused for the rest of the script. Therefore you have to be clear about what’s going on! For example, in the opening scene, Danny and several other drug runners are being chased by Mexican agents. As they’re running, we see their plane down by an airfield with a bunch of marijuana beside it. Danny and the men hide in a hole, barely escaping the agents. The next day, Danny comes out to see that the plane and the drugs are missing. Now with what I’ve told you so far, what would *you* assume happened to the plane? The agents took it, right? That’s what I thought at least. But Danny seemed shocked that the plane was gone. Well isn’t that the whole reason the agents were chasing you? Because you were smuggling drugs? Therefore if they saw your plane full of drugs, wouldn’t they confiscate it? That lack of clarity resulted in me being confused for the next 20 pages. I just kept thinking, why doesn’t he know that the agents took it? -- There's another scene later on where Danny is at a big Mexican party. He's offered a job and a brand new plane, but it's never made clear whether he accepts the job or not. We next see him on the outskirts of the mansion, talking to his buddy. They then hop into the plane that was a part of the deal and fly off in it. But because it wasn’t adequately explained whether he turned down the job or not, I couldn't figure out if had just stolen the plane or had taken it for the job. This is a big deal! Because it's a totally different story if he’s given the plane or he’s taken it. It's your duty as a writer to make all of these things crystal clear. The murkier your writing is, the more confusing, and therefore less enjoyable, your script will be.